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Three Questions to Ask Before You Start That Editing Project
2014, Q4 (September 22, 2014)
By Catherine Sprankle, Chapter Member

Cathy Sprankle
Cathy Sprankle
Back when I was still working as a lab scientist, before I turned my career focus to writing, I knew I liked to write and was good at it. Once my colleagues discovered this, I started getting requests like, “Would you look over this paper for me and give me some feedback on it?” As I’ve gained more experience, I’ve learned that requests like these can be addressed a lot more successfully if you ask your client or colleague three things up front: “What is the task?” “What are the rules?” and “What is the deadline?”

Question 1: What is the task?

To successfully address your client’s request, you’ll need a little more direction than "look over this paper for me." Is the paper a first draft on which she’s asking for advice on structuring an argument? Is she looking for a copy edit before submitting the document to a reviewer who’s a stickler on grammar and punctuation? Or is she asking you to review a final draft to make sure it conforms to the publisher’s requirements? Ask where the document is in the development process. A copy edit on an early draft is a waste of your time. Conversely, your client will not welcome suggestions for major revisions of a document that has been through many rounds of review. Agree with your client on the scope and goals of the request before you begin work on the document.

Question 2: What are the rules?

Regardless of what stage of development the document is in, you will save everyone time and effort down the road if you use the appropriate voice and adhere to the relevant style when you edit it. Standard operating procedures or abstracts to be submitted to a professional conference have a defined structure that you’ll have to adhere to. Scientific journals issue “Instructions for Authors” that provide guidance on how an article should be organized, article length, and abbreviation use. An article for general interest publication may need to be composed according to recognized style guides such as The Associated Press Stylebook or The Chicago Manual of Style. Ask your client what the audience or publication venue for the document is; determine the appropriate rules, guidelines, or style; and adhere to them during your edit.

Question 3: What is the deadline?

The answer to this question may ultimately determine what you are able to do for your client. If the answer to the question is, “No hurry, just get it back to me whenever you can,” you can devote whatever time is needed to the task as determined by your agreement on the scope of the task (see Question 1). If the deadline is “tomorrow morning” or “as soon as possible,” you may have to limit your effort to what the deadline and the competing demands on your time will allow. For a 2500-word document, allow 1 hour for a copy edit or 3 hours for a substantive edit. Plan to take more time if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter and will have to confirm correct spelling and use of technical terms, if you’re asked to do a fact check along with the edit, or if the author has limited proficiency in writing English. Figure out how much time you have to devote to the job; if that will limit what you will be able to do, let the client know and make sure that will address her needs before beginning work.

Clarifying the nature of the job, the appropriate style and audience, and the deadline before you take on an editing job will make you more comfortable and ultimately make your client happier, and hopefully coming back to you for help in the future!

Catherine Sprankle can be reached at cssprankle at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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